Thursday, January 05, 2006

Miketz (Midrash)

Joseph the Provider

In Parshat Miketz, Joseph is shown as delivering from famine, not only his own family, who come to Egypt as a result (the encounters described here are of course troubling in their own right), but the entire Egyptian people. Some of the problematics of this situation are described in Genesis Rabbah 91.5:

Another thing: “And Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt” [Gen 42:1]. It is written: “He who withholds grain shall be cursed by the people, but there are blessings on the head of the provider” [Proverbs 11:26]. “He who withholds grain shall be cursed by the people”—this is Pharaoh; “but there are blessings on the head of the provider”—this is Joseph. “He shall be cursed by the people“—this is Pharaoh, who hid grain during the years of famine, and the people cursed him, but Joseph fed the world during the years of famine, like a shepherd who guides his flock.

This opening section celebrates Joseph’s actions during the famine as earning him praise and blessing from the people, using the familiar petihta form in which a verse from one of the later books of the Bible is used to prove the point. But the invidious comparison to Pharaoh, and his portrayal here as a hoarding miser, is puzzling: was it not Pharaoh himself who empowered Joseph to organize and supervise all of Egypt’s efforts to meet this emergency? Why should he be cursed? But see below.

Concerning him David said: “Shepherd of Israel, hearken; he who guides Joseph like a flock” [Ps 80: 2]. When there was famine in the days of David, he sought mercy for them before the Holy One blessed be He, saying: Master of the Universe, guide your flock like Joseph, who fed the world during the years of famine.

The literal sense of the verse from Psalm 80 is that God leads Joseph—i.e., the kingdom of Israel, in which the Joseph tribes are predominant—like a flock, but it may also be read to say that it was Joseph who acted like a shepherd leading his flock. This section is a kind of digression, introduced here to highlight this verse about Joseph.

Once the famine worsened in the land, the Egyptians gathered together and came to Joseph. They said to him: Give us bread. He said to them: My God does not fed the uncircumcised; go and have yourselves circumcised and then I will give it to you. They went to Pharaoh, and cried out and wept before him, as is said: “and the whole land of Egypt was famished, and the people cried out to Pharaoh for bread” [Gen 41:55] and he said: “Go to Joseph; whatever he says to you, do!” [ibid.]. They said to him: We have gone to him, and he tells us empty things, saying: Have yourselves circumcised. Is this not what we said to you at the beginning: He is a servant, and it is not proper for a servant to play king over us.

Here the initial gratitude to Joseph and curses for Pharaoh are reversed. Joseph’s demand for circumcision is very strange. The sense of it may be that, having achieved a position of power and influence, he now asserts his Jewishness in an almost missionary way. In any event, the Egyptians turn to their tried and trusted monarch for advice, expressing more than a little suspicion of the stranger. We can imagine Joseph as a purely personal appointee of Pharaoh, whose authority was imposed upon the people but not really accepted by them. One is reminded of the anomalous position of such figures as Disraeli in positions of leadership in Gentile society.

He said to them: Fools, did not a proclamation go out during all those years of plenty: a famine is coming! You have brought this upon yourselves; why did you not leave in your homes grain for two or three or four years? They said to him: All the grain that was in our homes has rotted. He said to them: Do you not even have flour left from yesterday? They said to him: Even the bread that was in the basket has rotted. He said to them: “Go to Joseph; whatever he says to you, do!”

They said to him: If he makes a decree again the grain and it rots, perhaps he will make a decree against us and kill us? He said to them: “Go to Joseph!” If he tells you to cut off your flesh and feed it to the ostriches, listen to him, as is said: “whatever he says to you, do!” [ibid.].

Pharaoh supports Joseph unequivocally, no matter how strange and arbitrary his demands may seem, charging the people with laziness and lack of foresight. They in turn imply that Joseph used magical means to make their own grain rot, presumably to force them to come to him and buy grain for money (or, as we see later, to sell their cattle, property, and eventually themselves as slaves). Is Pharaoh’s support of Joseph a sign of total trust? Or is it perhaps a kind of royal fiat, wishing not to be bothered with such “administrative” matters?

“And the famine was upon the face of the land” [ibid., v. 56]. Scripture should have said “upon the land.” Why does it say: “on all the face of the land [al kol penai]”? R. Shmuel bar Nahman said: To teach that the famine began among the wealthy, for “the face of the land” refers to the wealthy. When a man is wealthy he has a joyous face to see his neighbor, but when a man is poor he has no face to see him, because he is ashamed before his neighbor. Therefore it says: “he who withholds grain from shall be cursed by the people.”

This section, which opens a new subject, is partly a folk etymology of the expression penai … (“the face of…”), a well-known Hebrew idiom for the elite, of wealth or power, of a given place. Is there an implication that the fact that the famine began among the wealthy is a sign that they bear greater moral responsibility for its occurrence (perhaps as punishment for not feeding the poor)? It is not clear.

Joseph as a Model for Personal Growth: A Bar-Mitzvah Sermon

A friend of mine asked for help with ideas for a Bar Mitzvah sermon for this Shabbat. As others may find interest in the ideas presented, I reproduce it below

The Torah speaks to us on many different levels. On one level, it speaks of the nation, of the unique destiny of the Jewish people already foreshadowed in the days of the patriarchs. As the great Spanish commentator Ramban said, “ma’aseh avot siman labanim”—“the deeds of the fathers are a sign for the children.”

But on another level it speaks of and to the individual. Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonnoye, one of the earliest great Hasidic teachers, always asked the same set of questions concerning every passage of the Torah: In what way does this relate to every person, in every place and every time? This is especially true of the stories of the patriarchs in the book of Bereshit.

The two cycles of stories which dominate the last two-thirds of the book of Genesis—those about Jacob and those concerning Joseph—may be read as what the Germans called a “Bildungsroman,” a tale of maturation, of self-discovery. As such, they are really the story of every young person who begins to make his way in the world. At a certain point, each one of us confronts the challenge of the transition from childhood, from the safety and security of being protected and cared for by his parents, of a warm home in which all of ones needs are provided, into the world of adulthood, where a person must create his own world—a profession, a home, and eventually choosing a life-partner and facing the challenges of raising a family of ones own. In today’s world, where many teenagers enjoy the luxury of a prolonged adolescence, all of these challenges still seem very far away at Bar Mitzvah age; nevertheless, this occasion symbolizes the beginning of the entry into adulthood, into a new phase of life.

But even childhood is not easy. Both Yaakov and Yosef confronted great difficulties in their childhood. In the case of Jacob—the rivalry with Esau. Jacob was by nature a quiet, peaceful child, who loved staying at home, close to his mother, according to the tradition sitting studying Torah—but even there he was forced to confront life in the form of a brother who was very different from him. Later on, as we read in Vayetse and Vayishlah, circumstances forced him to develop strengths that would enable him to successfully confront all kinds of challenges and obstacles: the tricks and deceptions of his crafty father-in-law Laban; a polygamous household with two sister-wives, who simultaneously loved each other but were bitter rivals for his affection; the renewed encounter with Esau; and in his later years, the conflicts among his own children and the uprooting to Egypt.

Yosef began life by having to deal with the hostility of his brothers. As a child, he no doubt added to his troubles by primping and showing off. His father spoiled him, and rather foolishly encouraged his vanity by making him a cloak that was a mark of his difference from the other brothers. He bragged about his dreams of greatness (whether they were true or not doesn’t really matter), moving his brothers to total rage. Last week’s parsha ended with his sale into slavery in Egypt, where he had to deal with a totally different situation—from being the pampered, favored son, he became a slave and later on, when wrongfully accused of misdoing, a prisoner. Through it all, he learned how to live by his wits, using his talents and inborn charm to create a special position for himself.

This week’s portion, Miketz, describes the next stage in Yosef’s life, in which he rises to greatness under Pharaoh. This new position, alongside the honor and wealth and pomp that accompanied it, demanded much talent and wisdom, as he bore responsibility for the welfare of an entire nation. From where did he derive these powers? We are not told, except that he sees them as a gift from God. Meanwhile, the old issues of his family come to the fore—through his reuniting with his brothers, on a new and different level. Much ink has been spilled on the question as to why he hid his identity from the brothers. Why did he make them go back and forth, alternately showing them warmth and hostility, even cruelty, taking Shimon as a hostage, as surety that all of them would come back. Was this motivated only by his desire to settle old scores? Or, as some suggest, was it intended to teach them a moral lesson, to test how they would react when the new youngest and favorite brother, Benjamin, was in the spotlight? The issue is too lengthy and complex to go into here.

On yet another level, Yosef acted as the senior brother (this comes out more clearly in next week’s parsha, Vayigash), who assumes greatest responsibility for his elderly father. This is yet another facet of being an adult: the reversal of roles, in which children, whose parents took care of them when they were little, find themselves thirty or forty years down the road themselves playing the role of parents, protecting their elderly parents from harm and grief. In this case, Yosef tried to protect old Yaakov from fully knowing the terrible conflicts and hostility that had gone on among the brothers, which might hurt him deeply.

Of course, it is highly doubtful that you will be sold into slavery, or have to deal with two wives, or administer an entire country in times of famine. Nevertheless, the Torah can serve each of us as a model for how an individual may meet challenges during the course of growing up, and in life generally. We may not live the specifics of the patriarch’s lives, but the way in which they grew and changed, and became better people during the course of their lives, can serve as a model for all of us.

To conclude with another midrash: Last week’s parsha begins with the words, “Vayeshev Yaakov”—“And Jacob dwelled..” The midrash tells us, “Jacob wished to sit in peace and tranquility and quiet. The Holy One blessed be He said: Is it not sufficient for the righteous that they will enjoy peace and tranquility in the next world, that they seek to sit in peace in this world too? So He sent him the trouble of Joseph and his brothers.” Our Rabbis seem to be saying that the essence of life is not about sitting back in pleasure and ease, in enjoying luxury and comfort, but in constant growth, in constantly meeting new and unexpected challenges.

May you be blessed in meeting whatever life brings you with strength, with wisdom, and with grace.


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